Programs seek funding to continue changing tribal members’ lives
When the Puyallup Tribe opened its Restorative Correctional Facility three years ago, the plan was to make it not just a place for incarceration but also a bridge to help guide inmates on a path to creating better lives for themselves. The word “restorative” was taken to heart, presenting a different way of treating Native American people – with compassion and respect rather than locking them up to do their time then be released back into the world no better equipped for life than they were before. Through programming including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and classes in which inmates can get help with domestic violence issues or earn their GED, success stories are happening more and more, proving that the Tribe’s method is working to help those who need it most.
In addition to these programs, there is one more that is having an inspiring effect on inmates that in some cases is nothing short of miraculous. Partnering with the Puyallup Language Program, any inmate who wishes can participate in classes to study and learn the Puyallups’ native language Lushootseed and take part in cultural arts and crafts that have deep meaning and bring about a heightened sense of pride in being Native American.
“Our whole goal with starting the language program is to reconnect the offenders with their heritage and integrate them back into society and be a part of the community,” said Sgt. Winnette Young (Apache). “We want to get them interested in what’s currently going on in the community and making them feel that they’ve got more of a vested interest versus just being a throwaway.”
Working for the state of Washington for 15 years, and with the Puyallup Tribe for five years, Young is the coordinator behind these programs at the Tribe’s Restorative Correctional Facility that were launched in 2016. She said that while working with the state was rewarding, she didn’t feel that she was having impacts on communities outside the prison walls. “But working for the Tribe, I can see the benefits all around us. We’ve had several gentlemen who have signed on to the (Tribe’s) maintenance program from little things we’ve taught them here that they didn’t know they were interested in,” she said. “We don’t want to just be a containment or housing unit – we want to show people that there’s more than this regardless of how you’ve been treated or what you’ve been told.”
The population at the Restorative Correctional Facility is made up of not just Puyallups but also Native American offenders from Skagit County, Chehalis, Nisqually, Quinault, Swinomish and other areas. Inmates are there from having committed misdemeanor-level offenses, and tend to stay for days, weeks, months and sometimes up to a full year in some cases.
Amber Hayward of the Puyallup Language Program is the lead instructor for the women’s classes and Chris Duenas, Archie Cantrell and Zalmai Zahir from the Language Program work with the men. Hayward said the idea for the classes came when Puyallup Tribal Police Department Lieutenant Alec Wrolson took a pack of Lushootseed playing cards into the facility for the inmates to use. Wrolson has been instrumental in not only establishing the language program, but the other programs as well.
“I thought that was a good idea,” Hayward said, “but then later I realized that the inmates probably didn’t know how to speak or read Lushootseed. Months later I thought more about it and contacted Alec about coming in.” Playing fun card games like Go Fish, no English is allowed throughout the game and Hayward hung pronunciation posters in the classroom for inmates to refer to. Card games, and traditional bone games, provide a way for the inmates to open up more, relax and talk about why they came to be incarcerated. That the inmates have had a chance to get clean of drugs and alcohol while in the facility is a big help for thinking clearly and being more honest.
“They’ll say things like, ‘I had a bad attitude and now I see I have to get my stuff together.’ Then they start talking about their kids in foster care and how they need to get their kids back by going to the classes,” Hayward said. “Language is very therapeutic – you’re sitting close to people and talking face to face and they start talking about their lives and what they’re going through. People really start to open up because it ties all things together.”
In addition, informing the judge that they are participating in classes for AA/NA, domestic violence, GED or language helps show that they are taking ownership of their condition and doing something positive to help turn their lives around.
“With the language program, it not only teaches them to interact while they’re in here with the folks they’re housed with, it also encourages them to go out and be more active in the community,” Young said. “That’s a big part of what we want to do here is make everyone feel included.”
Another plus about learning language is the cultural aspects it offers, and this is being shown through the making of ceremonial necklaces and drums at the Puyallup Restorative Correctional Facility. With beading supplies generously donated by Chief Leschi Schools Culture Teacher Teresa Harvey, inmates have made hundreds of necklaces for Chief Leschi Culture Day, elders lunches and the First Fish Ceremony. Hayward has also purchased beading materials out of her own pocket for inmates who have shown impressive artistic bead-working skills. Tribal Veteran Ron Simchen donated drum kits that the male inmates took to right away, with help from Clinton McCloud of the Tribe’s Culture Program who showed them how to make the drums. Reaching out to the inmates in this way is a gift itself, showing the inmates that tribal members care about them and that they can be part of the tribal community on the outside. Another example is the Tribe’s Community Domestic Violence Advocacy Program Director Billie Barnes who runs the domestic violence classes for women. Through drum circles and worksheets, the women focus on their own value and on healthy behaviors that would result in positive relationships.
“There’s always a chance for improvement and a way to make a difference,” Young said. “Even if you’re doing something like making necklaces for the Canoe Journey, for the elders or a wedding or any big event like that, it’s still a part of you that’s going out there and being involved. Because they know they’re making them for community events, when they get out they’ll be more inclined to join in and take part. Several of them (inmates) already want to volunteer at (Chief Leschi) school and there are several inmates that want to sign up to participate in the Canoe Journey for the first time in years. This is something they haven’t done before because they didn’t feel that they had anything to contribute.” Young said that one inmate in particular has shown a real gift for beading and she’s enjoying it so much that when she gets out she wants to start a beading business.
Allowing the inmates to bead in their cells fills their time with something meaningful, a meditative exercise that helps heal the mind and soul like nothing else could. It also brings a sense of accomplishment and contributing to their Native community in ways they hadn’t been able to do before.
“They put value into what they’re doing rather than just sitting in their pod all day,” Young said, as beading brings out stories of beading with grandparents, going to powwows and good things the inmates remember. Some have sent necklaces home to family members to show what they’re learning. “For these folks, something as simple as a beaded necklace puts them back in touch with families that they not have spoken to in years. Some of them have been disconnected for a very long time.”
Young said she has also gotten inmates interested in keeping a journal to express themselves and not keep their thoughts and feelings bottled up inside. “At first they were writing about how they were feeling each day and what agitated them, then suddenly they started doing poetry and stories, things they had never done before,” she said.
Hayward follows suit in her language classes, asking inmates thought-provoking questions that cause them to reflect within themselves on the good things they want to bring out. “These folks have never been asked these kinds of questions. It works out to be a marvelous avenue to get them to not only try different things but to also be vocal and quit keeping everything inside.”
It takes a special person to work with inmates, and Hayward is that person, Young said. “It’s been wonderful to have Amber coming over. She is just amazing to work with and all the inmates love being around her. The way she teaches – she does it with humor so everybody picks up on that so they’re not nervous or tense. She makes it fun to learn.”
Funding for materials and programs continues to be an issue, both women said, and hopes are that funding will come through so that Hayward and others can go to the correctional facility more often and have the money to provide more classroom materials.
“It’s made a very, very big difference in the way the inmates interact with each other and how it’s gotten them to start thinking about the community versus just themselves. This is something that I really hope we can continue and if we can get more funding in here, we would be able to fund projects and things for them to do,” Young said.
“When we have programs like this, Amber and her associates come in and say it doesn’t matter what you’ve done, you can always improve and these are some of the avenues you can take to make life better, make different choices and be included. They (inmates) know that their relatives are in the community doing things but they’ve either ostracized themselves or their families have ostracized them to where they don’t see a way back in. Some of this allows them that opportunity to say hey, I can show them I’ve learned something and I can do something.”